Advertisers fear Mamata's wrath: refuse to run anti-rape campaign ads

IN Media Freedom | 30/08/2013
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has found a new target for her censorship drive: advertisers!
AVAAZ, a global campaign network, held a protest on August 25 in Kolkata. A report.

Five of West Bengal’s outdoor advertising agencies and one major newspaper group have refused to run public interest ads in West Bengal urging Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to ‘stop attacking protesters and start attacking the problem’ of violence against women. One advertiser told Avaaz that the government would “tear up my limbs” if he ran the adverts on his billboards.  

The advertisements are a direct response to Chief Minister Banerjee’s handling of the recent gang-rape and murder of a young student from Kamduni.  After the incident, Chief Minister Banerjee lashed out at protesters, telling them to “shut up”, branding them “Maoists” and arresting and detaining 13 activists.  Avaaz has criticised the Chief Minister for creating a culture of fear and intimidation which is making “West Bengal the new epicentre of violence against women in India.”
The Avaaz advertisements  were designed to express the concerns of the more than 17,500 petition signers about the rape epidemic in West Bengal and the Chief Minister’s handling of it. An Avaaz internal legal review of the official guidelines on outdoor advertising published by the Kolkata Municipality found that the advertisement did not violate the city’s official guidelines. Nevertheless, all five advertisers Avaaz approached refused to run the ads, though none cited a valid legal basis for declining them.  
This level of self-censorship has become the norm, with all advertisers claiming that they feared violent reprisal attacks. One hoarding owner said while rejecting the Avaaz advertisement, “They’ll tear up my limbs. It’s a nightmare here. They are the super dons of Calcutta.” Another leading agency representative said, “There is an unwritten guideline. We can’t do anything against the government.”
Alaphia Zoyab, campaigner for Avaaz said: “West Bengal now officially has a reputation for being the epicentre of India’s crisis of violence against women. If Chief Minister Banerjee prefers to go after protesters rather than the rapists causing this problem, in a democracy the public has a right to respond. The solution is not to terrify the public into silence and self-censorship but to address our concerns.”
Avaaz held its ‘Breaking the silence’ protest on August 25, and participants included celebrities like actor-director Sanjoy Nag and Bangla rock band member Siddhartha Ray (Sidhu). They wore black tape over their mouths to protest the culture of silence that the state government has sought to impose on rape survivors and protesters. At the end of the march, those gathered laid down flowers, each one of them representing a victim and survivor of violence against women in West Bengal.
In July, Avaaz launched an online petition calling for a thorough investigation into the Kamduni student murder, a fair and fast trial for the perpetrators and systemic reforms to address the alarming rate of violence against women. In particular, Avaaz called on Chief Minister Banerjee to devote public funds for a mass education campaign designed to change cultural attitudes that enable violence against women and girls. The campaign was signed by over 17,500 people who also supported putting up a hoarding to drive home the message directly to the Chief Minister which advertisers have declined.
In January, Avaaz launched a report outlining that government-sponsored public education is key to ending violence against women. Avaaz has sent a copy of this report to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s office, urging her to engage constructively on this issue and provide funding but to date have not had a response from her.
Suzette Jordan, who survived a brutal rape in Kolkata last year and helps other survivors of rape and other forms of violence against women, said; “Instead of controlling our daughters and raising them with shackles we need to teach our sons that real men don’t bully, beat, harass and rape women. But for that message to have a revolutionary impact, it has to be backed by the government supporting rather than silencing people’s demands for action. Government and society have to work together to bring about a safer tomorrow for women and children.”
The Kolkata Police has unveiled a new 20 crore rupees programme where they will start the ‘Atma Raksha’ (self-defence) section to teach young girls taekwondo, judo, karate and wrestling for a month and set up a new SOS system. But these initiatives are coming from the Tourism Ministry with a special focus on a very narrow segment of women travellers, leaving behind a huge mass of Indian women. Avaaz argues that these investments will only help address the symptoms. Only by tackling dangerous attitudes in society that have led to a massive rape epidemic through a major public education campaign is real change possible.
(Avaaz is a global campaign network that works to ensure that the views and values of the world's people shape global decision-making. "Avaaz" means "voice" or "song" in many languages.)
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The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

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